Village Person

Acklington

Back on the train, I proffered my return ticket to the guard and asked him if I could break my journey at Acklington, continuing later on the evening train.

“Yes, of course,” he replied. His body language added, but why would you want to?

I was, again, the only passenger. I got a very real feel for this train’s place in the railway pecking order when, shortly after leaving Alnmouth, we were shunted into a loop for ten minutes to allow an East Coast express to overtake. It roared past, the turbulence from the gleaming silver coaches rocking my diminuitive train from side to side. Eventually, we resumed our southbound trundle and were soon slowing for the stop at Acklington.

Acklington Station Acklington Station

I had a feeling that, with the niceness of Chathill, I might have peaked too soon, and I was right. Acklington has a similar imposing station building, but this one is now fenced off from the platforms. The waiting room is clearly of the same design as Chathill’s, but here there was no charming railwayana on display, just a lot of accumulated dirt.

Acklington Waiting Room

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Postcards from the Edge

Chathill station

I stumbled, bleary-eyed, into the Tyneside dawn. The streets of Newcastle were quiet; Geordieland was, by and large, still soundly asleep. The pavements were wet from overnight drizzle, and clouds hung ominously in the sky, threatening further rain. Luckily, I didn’t have far to go. I had deliberately booked into The Royal Station Hotel which, as the name suggests, is right next door to the station.

I had set no fewer than four alarms on my phone: the first at 5am, then at five-minute intervals thereafter. This may seem a bit over the top, but I needed to ensure I was up and at Newcastle Central station by 5.55am at the very latest, in order to catch a rare train to Chathill.

When I walked into the station at quarter to six, I found few passengers, but there was a Super Sprinter ticking over in platform 1.

Newcastle Central - 0545 0555 to Chathill

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The Restaurants at the End of The Universe, Part 2

Corrour nameboardWondering where Part 1 is? It’s over on my personal blog.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and Ian and I were on the train to Corrour. This is one of those stations. When trainspotters gather, they speak of Corrour in hushed tones. In lists of superlatives, Corrour features heavily: the highest, the most remote, and so on…

Corrour was opened with the line in 1894, giving access to the Corrour Estate. The landed gentry would arrive for fun-packed holidays of deer stalking and grouse shooting – to this day, the Caledonian Sleeper makes special provision for people travelling with firearms.

More recently, it has become a popular station with walkers, who start and end their long rambles in the countryside here. In the 1990s it became famous for another reason. In Danny Boyle’s seminal film Trainspotting, the station was the starting point for the junkie protagonists’ day out in the country.

Disclaimer: I am not a heroin addict, and I’m fairly sure Ian isn’t either. I have also never seen Trainspotting, although visiting the station has persuaded me to finally watch it. The DVD hasn’t arrived from Amazon yet, but I have a feeling I will be impatiently sitting through grimy misery, waiting for the 60 seconds of railway footage. Sorry, Danny Boyle – good job on the Olympics thing, though.

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Come Rannoch on our Moor

If you haven’t already, you may want to read my account of the Caledonian Sleeper over on my main blog, which marks the start of my Scottish trip.

Rannoch stationScotland, I think I’m in love with you. It was Tuesday morning, and I was enjoying the first of three days exploring the Highlands in the company of my friend Ian. We had arrived in Fort William a few hours earlier on the Caledonian Sleeper. After the overnight journey from London, any other journey seems rather ordinary, but as the ScotRail Super Sprinter chugged its way south – back the way we had come earlier that morning – I really couldn’t have been happier.

The railways came late to this part of Britain. It wasn’t until 1894 that fearless navvies completed a route through some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the country. Despite the best efforts of Beeching, over a century later there is still a substantial network of routes criss-crossing the Highlands. The West Highland Line, linking Glasgow, Fort William and Mallaig, regularly features on lists of the greatest train journeys in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. The scenery is truly spectacular. The line twists and turns, following the contours of the landscape as well as it can. In places the train hugs the side of cliff faces on narrow ledges, in other parts it traces a curve round the shores of lochs. Sometimes, where the engineers could find no other alternative, you find yourself flying across valleys on majestic viaducts.

Top Rail Journey in the World poster

Every station on this route deserves to be visited for this blog, and one day I will come back and do just that. For now though, I had to make do with Rannoch, an isolated station located in the heart of the moor from which it takes its name.

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Weekend at Berney

Berney Arms station signA few times a day, the peace and tranquility of the Reedham Marshes is disturbed by the roar of diesel engines, as a Greater Anglia train chugs across the flat Norfolk countryside towards Great Yarmouth. The train is traversing an area largely devoid of human population, save for a few farms. Most of the time, the train will hurry across the landscape and be gone in an instant.

Occasionally, however, the driver will shut off power here, and the train will begin to slow down. The brakes will be applied and the train will squeal to a halt next to a tiny wooden platform. A single door will pop open and someone will emerge. Then the train’s engine will rev up and it will continue on its way, leaving its former passenger seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Train at Berney Arms station

Welcome to Berney Arms railway station, serving a local population of zero. Its main users are birdwatchers, ramblers, cyclists and – of course – the occasional mad trainspotter just visiting for the hell of it.

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Wall to Wall Carbis

Carbis Bay nameboardThe penultimate station on my Cornish trip was the penultimate station on the St Ives Bay Line, namely Carbis Bay, a pleasant little station tucked away on a cliff side.

Some trains skip Carbis Bay, so I had to be careful to catch the right train from St Ives. My precise timetabling was not a problem, as the trains were punctual all day. In fact, reliability was generally excellent throughout my stay. The only severe delay had been when leaving Liskeard towards Truro on my second day, and even this had been caused by circumstances outside the railway’s control. It’s hard to believe that this is the same First Great Western which regularly attracts the ire of Slough commuters.

Carbis Bay station

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A Pinch of Saltings

Lelant Saltings station nameboardLelant Saltings is the newest station on the line. It opened in 1978 and from day one was intended as a park and ride facility — Cornwall County Council paid for the station, car park and subsidised train fares.

As a result, the car park is disproportionately large, which made its emptiness on the morning of my visit all the more obvious. Just one lonely car sat in the pay & display. I’m sure it’s a different story during the summer, but on this rainy March morning it felt rather deserted.

Lelant Saltings Car ParkLelant Saltings Hut

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Lelant-ics

Map of the St Ives Bay LineMy final day in Cornwall and I aimed to capture the St Ives Bay Line. This short (4¼ mile) line branches off from the Cornish Main Line at its penultimate station, St Erth, and winds its way up to the town of St Ives. Although the end-to-end journey time is only about 15 minutes, it has a reputation as one of the most scenic lines in Britain, and I was keen to see for myself.

I arrived at Penzance on Thursday morning, to find another Sprinter simmering away under the cavernous roof. This was the 0857 to St Ives, one of a few trains on the line that start at Penzance rather than St Erth. During the summer the branch trains are rammed with tourists, but on an overcast Thursday morning in March I had the carriage more or less to myself.

Train for St IvesEmpty interior of St Ives train

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All’s well that Perranwell

Perranwell station nameboardI was back at Truro station the next morning ready for the 0920 departure down the Falmouth branch – or the Maritime Line, as the marketing people would like you to call it.

My goals were similar to those of the previous day’s Looe Valley roving – visit all the stations on the line. I had carefully done my research prior to coming down to Cornwall, and ascertained that the Maritime Line Ranger would suit my purposes.

Unusually, the booking office clerk did not flinch when I asked for a Day Ranger ticket. What came out of his ticket machine, however, was not a Ranger, but a normal Off Peak Return ticket to Falmouth Docks. I queried this with him.

“The Maritime Line Ranger doesn’t exist any more, but you can use the return like a Day Ranger,” he said. “Just don’t put it in the ticket barrier when you come back here, or it’ll swallow it,” he added helpfully.

Extract from FGW network map showing Maritime LineWell, that makes perfect sense. Okay then. I suspected this explanation was a lie told to get rid of me – if it was, it worked, because I accepted it and left the ticket office.

A study of the Maritime Line timetable quickly revealed that I would have no issues with Parliamentary stations or uneven service frequencies today. The Truro to Falmouth Docks line is no meandering, sparsely-served branch – indeed, passengers at stations along this route are surprisingly well-provided for, thanks to recent investment by Network Rail and Cornwall County Council. After many years of an hourly or worse service, train frequency was boosted to two per hour in 2009, when a new passing loop was provided at the halfway point, enabling two trains to operate on the branch at the same time (there’ll be more on this in the next blog post).

One station that hasn’t benefited from the increase in services is the first stop on the line from Truro: Perranwell. Not only does it retain an hourly service, with half the trains on the line skipping the station, but it is a request stop to boot. It was the one awkward spot on the day’s plan, and I was glad to be getting it out of the way early.

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Between a Rock and a Sandplace

Photo of Sandplace station nameboardThe Looe Valley Line service is provided by a single train shuttling up and down the branch. I assumed this meant the same train crew would be on duty all day and was prepared to blush a little while explaining my odd obsession to the guard. After all, I had already made myself stand out by boarding the train at Coombe Junction Halt.

As it turned out, the friendly female guard from earlier had disappeared and a different person was now on duty. No conversation required, just a request to get off at the next station. Cringing avoided, for now at least.

Sandplace is the penultimate station on the Looe Valley Line. This one offers quite extravagant passenger provision – not just a waiting shelter in the same faux-GWR style as found elsewhere on the line, but also a small garden with a picnic table. It really is quite lovely.

Photo of Sandplace station platform

Beyond Sandplace, the railway runs onto a causeway with water both sides. It’s an intriguing bit of engineering, which was more or less forced on the line’s builders because of the course of the river along the valley floor.

No time to hang around and study the construction though, as I decided to make way to Looe on foot rather than wait for the next train.

Photo of Robert in front of Sandplace station signPhoto of entrance to Sandplace station

The entrance to Sandplace station is quite unforgiving. Once out of the gate you are immediately on the main road with not even a bit of pavement to protect you. Undaunted, I set off. My first walk, from St Keyne to Causeland, had been quite pleasant, and I assumed that this would be the same. I was wrong…